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Chapter 1: The Child and the Recipes.

(Genn) One day when I was a toddling child I was down by the hollyhocks in our garden and I found a mole. I turned it over and looked at its marvelous little face and discovered its tiny hands. I'd never seen a mole before, or even knew one had hands, and I was flooded with a feeling of joy.

Something I am going to try to bring to you in this seminar is that as adults we should learn to daily and hourly dig out our wondering child and train ourselves to always look at what we are seeing as if it were "baby-eyes" new. When we develop again this way of seeing, our life and our work becomes fresher. We don't repeat ourselves so readily, and we don't become jaded. As I have explored my possibilities as a visual artist I found that this attitude became central to my happiness.

I've played and experimented with other systems, like self-organization, and watching the clock, and meeting deadlines--but I wanted a mode of productivity that was so natural and so joyous that good work came along automatically. I remembered the little mole I had found when I was a child and it gave me the key. It was elusive and difficult to achieve at first, but I was able to find it--for the minutes and hours of my workdays.

I call it `The Joy Mode'. When you have this mode working for you, you will produce automatically, your quality will improve, and things will happen for you, and you will have what appears to be good luck. I searched for a long time before I found what this `Joy Mode' is, and I want to try to describe it for you.

A wonderful British potter, the late Michael Cardew, spent a great deal of his life trying to understand creative joy. He said: "If you are lucky, and if you live long enough, and if you trust your materials and you trust your instincts, you will see things of beauty growing up in front of you, without you having anything to do with it."

He suggested you have to be a bit lucky, and you've got to spend some time at it. Then you must trust your materials, that is, you are on intimate terms with the media of your choice; paints, brushes, supports. You should be on a first name basis with your materials. And most importantly you learn to trust your instincts. You get up in the morning and say, "This job is right for me today", and you know it. You're not being influenced by outside forces, or by guilt or obligation.

With Michael Cardew's insight I changed my daily routine. I sort of became born again. I had flirted with this concept many times in my creative life, and one day I fell head over heels for it. I began to look at my work as new and was more encouraged to continue with it. Somehow, after a few minutes, a little bird told me what was going to give joy. It might be a big or small project, a challenge or an easy piece. I was propelled to the easel, squeezing paints with joy. The work flowed and was buoyant and showed confidence--sometimes it was even--dare I say it--good work.

"You will see things of beauty growing up in front of you, without you having anything to do with it." And when those things of beauty are not as beautiful as you had hoped--that is part of the game too. Your failures can be joyful, because they are the stepping-stones to your successes.

Here's another way of looking at this idea. Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has researched and popularized a concept which he calls "Flow." He looks for the optimization of experiences in all areas of life. If we are prepared to accept happiness as a worthwhile goal, we gain "flow" by a total involvement in the chosen activity, through concentration and the recognition and appreciation of complexity. With three essential components: craft, con brio and connection, we reach what musicians call `performance level,' which heightens the satisfaction, improves the success rate, and minimizes failure.

Craft means building your skills and techniques to high levels of excellence.

Con brio means working--performing--with elan, brilliancy, dash. You are a maestro, a master.

Connection means lacing your work with meaning for others.

(Man) You mentioned failures. We all have lots of them. Should failures be reworked or discarded?

(Genn) Weak artists cling to their failures, keep them around, and live with the dream that they can someday be made to fly. Strong artists who are in a mood to grow gather them up and burn them. Burning is one of the most satisfying and releasing creative acts. Get rid of the ones you don't like. You are in the joy mode and you have the intuition and the courage to say "I know I don't like it". The opinions of others are not important. You'll gain strength by getting rid of the things you don't like. As sculptress Cathryn Jenkins says: "Put the chisel in the crack and give it a good whack."

(Man) I heard someone say to re-paint your paintings, seven, eight times and that seems to have some value for me. I seem to learn.

(Genn) If you have the spirit to break out a new canvas and tackle an old subject, then do it.

(Man) I re-do recent failures. Not old ones.

(Genn) There is value in that. Some people have the metabolism to do it, but I'd say most of us lose interest and the creative enthusiasm in a subject and we would rather turn to another. You may be one of the artists that can handle that kind of re-working. You should do what suits you best. However, if you leave unsatisfactory paintings around your studio, you may repeat your own mistakes. Poor paintings can jinx your muse and delay your natural growth.

(Woman) Are you saying that you completely gesso it over?

(Man) Yes, start again. Learn from what you've done and carry on.

(Woman) I have a lot of paintings that I like, probably about two hundred, but they haven't sold. I don't think burning them would be the answer. They're in the way.

(Genn) Mentally in your way?

(Woman) Yes, there is something stopping me from going ahead. What should I do with them? Have a sale, give them away?

(Genn) Here are a couple of suggestions. I didn't have the courage to burn some things that were borderline, so I built another studio at the bottom of my property. I call it my `salon des refusees.' It's a low-tech studio, there is no telephone, no radio, only an old pot-bellied stove. This is where I store my problematical paintings--the unburnables--in a sort of limbo. I have the same volume of paintings as you, but every once in a while I feel like having a day with these old acquaintances and I go down to that studio and play around. Sometimes I rework them. Sometimes I reline them.

(Woman) What do you mean by reline?

(Genn) I cut the canvas from the stretcher and glue it with different cropping to a new support of either wood or canvas.

(Woman) In answer to the lady who has too many paintings around I suggest she take them somewhere and have them critiqued. She needs an objective opinion, someone who will weed out the good from the bad.

(Genn) You should be your own best critic and have the courage to do your own weeding. You are hoping that some authority will say, "This is good, and this is bad, and this should go directly to the Guggenheim." Rugged individualists are fully in charge of their own quality control. Beginning artists, beginning writers, anybody who is taking a chance tends to hang their ego on their efforts, hoping--just hoping--that the quality is there. Early dross should be eliminated so that we can grow beyond. I call this seminar "Professionals' Guide." It invites you to become a professional. Professionals put their amateur thinking behind them.

(Woman) Is it unprofessional to sell your older work when it is not in line with something you are doing right now?

(Genn) If you are worried about the continuity of your image--don't bother. If collectors want your early work, let them have it--but only if you can live with it yourself. And take heart in the knowledge that for every person who likes your early work there is someone who loves your new.

(Man) Not to belabor the point, but this is a problem with me. I have often at a weak moment given paintings to family members, my wife in particular, and later on I don't like the painting and it hangs in my home and I have to live with it. My wife won't give it up, what do I do? Do I engineer a burglary?

(Genn) Offer to trade for work you consider superior. I try to make sure that the paintings I give away to friends and loved-ones are the very best I can do. People with less developed taste or less fussy standards will always find something they like in your studio, especially if it's free. Try to steer them in the right direction.

(Man) I'd like to comment about selling older paintings. I have painted for eighteen years, and I don't think that just because a painting is old, means that it is a bad painting. I believe that over the course of time there is one painting meant for everybody--and if it takes five years for that certain person to come along and select that older painting, then so be it.

(Genn) There is a collector for every painting above a certain level, the rest should be incinerated.

We can all tell stories of paintings that stayed around for a long time. I had one of a Dalmatian dog jumping up on a girl in a spotted dress. It was a happy painting, well painted, and fresh looking. It had been to at least a dozen galleries at one time or another and I discovered it again in my `salon des refusees'. I pulled it out and loved the spots all over again, so I sent it off to a gallery that hadn't had it before. Right away a discriminating connoisseur wandered in and bought it. I think he had his own Dalmatian and a daughter with a spotted dress.

There is somebody for every painting--even your poor ones. The point is do you want the poor ones to be out and around in the world?

(Woman) How do you feel about putting the date on paintings?

(Genn) About fifteen years ago I stopped dating paintings; they stay fresher that way. When a dealer or a collector turns over a painting and sees an older date on it they sometimes think there must be something wrong with the painting. I should add that many collectors like to know the date of a painting, and for these people I make it possible for them to find out.

(Woman) How?

(Genn) I make the date, location, and other information available to the buyer on enquiry.

(Woman) Authors often don't sell their writing easily, but we assume that paintings are supposed to just go out the door.

(Man) I've never supposed that.

(Genn) If a dealer is exhibiting your work, and people are seeing it, it is doing the best it can. If you would have your paintings on other peoples' walls you should ask yourself, "What business am I in?" I think you should be in the business of communicating feelings, and if you are not doing that, all this shifting and moving stuff around isn't going to make a great deal of difference. E.M. Forster said; "Only connect." He was talking about our job as artists. His idea was to concentrate on the transfer of a valuable feeling to another person. When you have your wondering child and the joy mode going for you--that is the first step toward making a connection.

(Woman) I've tried being joyous and childlike, but I'm afraid my work is still only--childlike.

(Genn) That childlike part of your work is an important step for you. I hope to show that the wondering child is only a part, and a prerequisite, for the greater trip.

(Woman) I'm constantly disappointed and frustrated on that trip.

(Genn) I think it's more like a yellow brick road. There is a surprise around every corner; some parts are beautiful, some perverse; along the way you meet friends who have similar problems. Devilish witches await you. You discover that it is more difficult to get to Oz than you originally thought.

I'd like now to draw your attention to another way of thinking--a recipe way of thinking. This, you might say, is a more grown up way of approaching your job. And it is another important part of your job.

A few years ago I did a demonstration for a group of artists and I took a friend with me who was not an artist. He sat quietly at the back of the room with his arms folded, watching what I did, listening to the questions. On the way home he said, "They are all looking for the secret, and the secret is that there is no secret." I had to tell him that there are secrets, and that they can and are picked up from other artists, and also that artists can claim the secrets for themselves.

I recommend making up lists--or recipes if you like. In the heat of the job it is easy to forget the richness that you might bring to your work. Sergi Eisenstein, the great Russian film-maker, was asked about his method of directing, and he said, "Careful planning, and brilliant improvisation." When you go out with a script, you have an advantage. Your lists should be your own personal lists. They would be of systems you use: plans, directions, techniques. They can be simple and obvious, or they can stretch your highest capabilities. Our seminar today and tomorrow is not a workshop on how to paint, but I want to give you a sample list such as you might make up yourselves. These are items that I currently think about when I'm painting, and I try to improvise on them as brilliantly as I can. You will have your own list. That's what makes your work unique. You name the ideas--and you claim the ideas. They become yours because you have thought them through.

Robert Henri, who wrote the wonderful book called The Art Spirit, said, "There is no art without contemplation." When you come to an area in a painting you have the knowledge that you have thought about it before--your brush does not just wander aimlessly. You know how unsatisfactory it is to be in the middle of a work and have the feeling that you don't know what the dickens you're doing. You are in a mess. Whereas, when you use `name it and claim it', you can say to yourself, you are in the `reflected light' area of the work, or you are in the `warm against cool'. It seems so simple and obvious, but it is valuable. Let me go through this list and explain what I think when I see my own notes. Think about these as little recipes. Equal intensity lay-bys: Colours of the same intensity and brightness are laid side by side so they vibrate with one another, creating excitement. Defocus: Paintings that are equally sharp and focused are boring. When we work from life, our eyes dart around the subject, focusing on each item, and this creates a problem. Real life is different. When each of you look at me I am in focus, but the no-smoking sign up here beside me is not. Your paintings will pick up life if subjects you wish to feature are sharper, and secondary elements softer.

The big blur: Blur some subjects and areas in your paintings. Create mystery and paucity. Paucity means smallness of number or quantity. In art it means the minimal expression needed to convey the form or idea. Warm against cool: Place warm (red, orange, yellow) colours adjacent to cool (purple, blue, green) to give visual interest. Adjacent areas accepting temperature: Charles Reid, in Painting What You Want to See shows how you can achieve harmony in your work by including the colour of an object in its surroundings and so relating the parts to the whole.

Reflected light: Many artists don't know anything about reflected light. I think they never noticed it, or, with their jaded adult eyes, resisted seeing it. Reflected light enhances quality and makes subjects live. To give you an example of reflected light, there is a lady here with a purple-pink sweater, and the colour glows on the underside of her chin. Contrapuntal over-emphasis: This is where you give counterpoint to your main theme by emphasizing secondary elements. Draw attention to normally uninteresting areas through care of design.

Reinforcement of negative areas: Try to see your work in terms of negative areas--featuring the patterns between elements of the painting. Fit the sky down into the trees. Pop in the lights or darks behind the wicker chair. Held and lost edges: Make elements in the work soft and then hard; make lines come and go. Evaporate some things and let the viewer's eye behold some mystery and excitement.

Gradations: Great paintings have gradations, large and small. I like to fit them around one another. They serve to lift the subject off the two-dimensionality of the canvas. Gradations are an essential abstract convention. As watercolourist Judi Betts says; "Don't go two inches without changing the color or the tone."

Sophisticated greys: Greys should be properly mixed, not just variations of black and white. Mix opposites on the colour wheel, then add white to achieve greys that are richer and full of light.

Colour surprise: These are the heightened points of colour in your painting that bring it to life. In order to make colour surprise work you must have an absence of strong colour in other areas. The hunter in the sombre landscape wears a red jacket.

Coming to light: To come to light, move up the colour wheel (in other words toward twelve o'clock--yellow) and add white. Conversely, to come to shadow, move down the wheel and add black. For example, to give the sunny side of orange, move up to yellow orange, and add a little white.

Activation: These are spots of colour or pattern that circulate around in the painting, controlling and leading the eye of the viewer.

Strong value composition: Great paintings have great patterns. A checkerboard or a contrasty tiled floor are satisfying to the eye. Victor Vasarelli, and others, explored and expanded on this idea.

Inter-patterning: See the elements of the painting as patterns, and work them together. For example, make tall and enfolding grass turn into the striped dress of a young lady.

Local colour conceptualizing: This means allowing a chosen colour in a painting to become the mother-colour to all the other colours. A painting which features a bright red sweater as a center of interest might lean toward red in other areas.

The real see: The Canadian painter A. Y. Jackson noted that `failure of sight' was a tiresome problem. He meant we should be able to look at our work-in-progress as if it were previously unseen. He suggested laying the painting aside. Working on several paintings at the same time facilitates this. The idea is to surprise yourself by catching the painting out of the corner of your eye, or in a mirror, or in another room. Catch it, and size it up.

The joyous stroke: More than any other element in your work, your brush stroke tells about your personality and your caring. It's your signature. Take a good look at your strokes and see who you are--fresh, fiddly, elegant, constipated, grand.

Talk back: Let your painting talk back to you. Clear your mind by looking out the window for a few moments. Then, as honestly as you are able, let the painting tell you what it needs. You are not forcing it to have what your mind tells you it should have, but rather what it now needs. It's a different way of thinking.

Flats: Some areas on a painting can be painted flatly, without gradation or variation, often with a strong local colour. Over-rule the tendency to imitate unimportant minor nuances in nature such as the details of lawns or sand. Keep some areas simple.

Tie-ins: Areas that come to one another and blend into one another. For example, from where you are seated, my sweater is nearly the same colour as the blackboard, and could be rendered as one unit. Your mind tells you that there is a line running down my shoulder, but you don't need to put in what your mind tells you.

Pink focus: Emphasize a pink nose, pink elbows, knees, or fingers. This is a small convention which gives life and energy to figure work.

Avoidance of knowns: Knowns are boring. Try to find the surprising alternates. Avoid the obvious cliche. Inflict your own unique flavor and personality on the work.

This is an incomplete and serendipitous list. Did you notice that some items are contradictory? In creativity, contradiction is a principle. Also, some concepts are very close to one another--but they have subtle differences. This is where decision and choice and taste are called upon. My object in presenting this list is to help you to ask yourself what you want to have in your list.

(Woman) You mentioned Robert Henri and Charles Reid. Could you comment on them?

(Genn) Robert Henri is best known to most of us as the author of The Art Spirit. He was a great American artist and teacher. His death in 1929 brought to an end a life of uncontaminated devotion to art. He had a wide influence with artists in the days when quality was still taught in schools. He had innovative ideas. One of them was that his students should work in one room with the model set up in another, so the students would have to go back and forth with the information in their heads.

The other book that I mentioned was Painting What You Want To See, by Charles Reid. Reid paints exceptionally well in both oils and watercolour. This book, and others by him, are illustrated with his and his students' work. You look at those illustrations and then try to determine what is on his mind and what he is going to say about them--and very often he surprises you. His comments challenge the way you previously looked at things, and build the range of your capabilities.

(Man) How important do you think creativity is?

(Genn) Claude Levi-Straus had a theory that there is no such thing as individual creativity. He suggested that we "never create absolutely, we only choose certain combinations from a repertoire of ideas which it is possible to reconstitute." This is bad news for artists who are always pulling rabbits out of hats and getting credit for opening new vistas. However, for anyone who attends the great art show-places of the world, it comes as no surprise to find that similar works appear everywhere with different signatures. The collective consciousness, according to Levi-Straus, is like a big pot of lentil soup from which we all ladle into our personal bowls. We have to ask ourselves a few questions here. Would it be unreasonable for artists to simply act as if they were being original with every creation? If the ladling produces something that is new to the beholder--is it new? How valuable is the concept of "new"?

What I call creation often sneaks up and surprises me when I am in the act of repetition. Sir Lawrence Olivier said it was better to repeat a line ten times than to talk for two days on how it would best be delivered. With repetition, the alternate approaches become clear, the options open. This is professional creativity.

(Woman) I disagree. The opposite is true. By not repeating something, the door is opened to new experiences and new avenues. If producing new ideas for creativity doesn't work, why are we going to talk here for two days?

(Genn) Is talk creativity?

(Woman) The purpose of seminars is to ingest a volume of new perspectives, and to claim the ideas for which individuals have an affinity. Seminars are part of contemplation. It is up to the individual to use his own means to put the ideas he has contemplated to work so that the artist can grow and develop and improve.

(Genn) Peter Ewart, one of Canada's senior artists, likes to compare the life of an artist to the assault on a great mountain such as Everest. Hundreds start from the valley, but only a few make it to the top. Some stay mired in the gumbo and the devil's-club, but they too contribute to the climb. In Peter's words, "They climb the Lotze Face and then they may reach the South Col. Some may camp for what seems to be a lifetime on the Col." According to Peter Ewart, no matter how far the individual climbs they should be satisfied just to be included on the great mountain.

Artists have an obligation to do their personal best. It's a commitment to the child in you--and to the adult capabilities of gathering those things that you need to fine-tune your craft. Put the two together and you will have an almost religious conviction--a passion--for your work.

Here's a little statement of feeling--perhaps it's a sort of artist's prayer:

"The world's engagement of beauty is my bible,
and Art is my religion.
I come to it as a child,
and I add all the grown wisdom I can gather.
Creativity is my salvation.
My easel is the altar.
My paints are the sacraments.
My brush is my soul's movement,
and to do poorly, or not to work, is a sin."


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The Painter's Keys by Robert Genn



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Last modified: 05/24/2015 :: Copyright 2015 Robert Genn, All Rights Reserved